A must-read posting – Kelvin Smythe

The Treehorn Express

 Treehorn story? http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/print.asp?article=11697

The Treehorn Express Theme song: ‘Care for Kids’



Kelvin Smythe, highly respected former Chief Inspector of Schools, New Zealand, has a blog site call networkonnet on which he posts comments about conditions affecting New Zealand schools. His latest statement is one that all should read.


 I have taken the liberty of extracting sections from this robust paper and tagged some pieces – albeit unsatisfactorily, because it is such an impressive treatise. It needs to be read in full and given serious consideration.  It confirms the attitudes of those who care for kids at school, I’m sure. [Phil Cullen]

The article is called:

 Bitter and Cynical Strategy on Poverty.

Kelvin Smythe  opens this posting with a comment on the Deputy-PM Bill English’s statement that poverty is not a big issue. Kelvin Smythe then moves to the principles underlying the PM’s notions as they apply to schooling problems, by saying…..

“When the power elite refers to ‘real results’ it is referring to immediate measureable results which, in relation to social issues, is a way of distorting and avoiding the inherent nature of such issues. Such issues are always complex, fundamental, and chronic – therefore not amenable to short term measures or measurement. [Consider, for instance, the  way national standards [Australians substitute NAPLAN for ‘national standards’] and league tables are proposed as a solution to education problems.]”


“Contemporary Western society – driven as it is by individualism, managerialism, privatisation, accountability, and a deep distaste of the idea of public service – is running perilously short of trust, that vital ingredient for a truly healthy social democracy.

All the time , of course, while non-solutions to complex social issues are slowly being pursued to political advantage, actual solutions are being ignored, leading to the complex issues becoming more intractable and the ostensible beneficiaries of the non-solutions even more disadvantaged.

This posting’s main argument is that in the current political climate, any changes to education or other social policy, whether intended to help the poor or not, will result in making things worse. The power elite knows this, or goes out of its  way not to know it, which is the justification for calling the government’s policy on poverty, bitter and cynical.

Using the powerful tools of propaganda and persuasion at their disposal, the power elite, by playing on fear and insecurity, has been able to convince large sections of society to work against their own interests .”


The Cultural Capital of Families.

Kelvin Smythe discusses the degrees of cultural capital within families. A NZ HERALD (Wed. Jan.2. 2012) refers to a study that showed that “…competent, bright families transmit their skills to their children….being bred in a high income family provides children with role models and resources for both educational achievement and career success.”

But then, Smythe suggests that such reports don’t  “…really capture the half of it.”  “It is so easy to sit in an academic office or a political office and see things generally, acknowledging the problems, as this report does but, in my view, failing to grasp anywhere satisfactorily the disorderliness and fantastical limitations, the mind-numbing and overwhelming triviality of many children’s experiences, the violent haphazardness of events.

Compare the richness of conversational exchanges between adults and children in some houses and the shouted, impatient, at-wits-end verbal scatterings in others; compare the insubstantial, unhealthy food-preparation-on-the-run in these houses; the never being on you own and the constant clamour and disorder; the catch-as-can family sleeping arrangements; the broken nights from people returning from pubs, parties, and night shifts; the ugliness of backyards; the grinding effects of poverty; and the hopelessness of ever finding a way out.”


Teacher Support

“The teachers know, of course, what some of these children from poorer families are going through. You see them comforting these children – violence at home, a father in jail, a family separation, all sorts of things…comforting at crisis moments…hugging them…reassuring them….providing a sense of stability….preparing special programs….giving special help….setting an appropriate pace for learning….providing sublime patience while they artfully build up children’s confidence, experiences, conceptual understandings, and learning skills.”


But look where education is being pushed : a desiccated wasteland of learning. Teaching is becoming formalistic when it needs to be flexible and imaginative; narrow when it needs to be wide; standardised when it needs to be diverse; a soulless learning cram when it needs to be based on understanding; and leached of real world realities when it needs to be cognitively and affectively rich.


Political Capital

Political parties of all persuasions have “used the concept of provider capture to work cruelly against improving the lot of children. What its use has done is to to move teacher knowledge from policy making, leaving the field open to politicians, bureaucrats, quantitative academics, newspaper editors, and that entity known as the public [whose voice is interpreted by these groups] – it also removes from a position of influence, the voice of parents with children at school. In this way, schooling becomes something of a generational thing, with the older generations holding almost complete sway over educational policy, free to vent their generational prejudices on today’s children and teachers.”

“Then there is the issue of accountability. In the last thirty years in Western countries, accountability has been largely used against schools for their ‘failure’ to achieve the utopian impossibility of having children from straitened circumstances achieve as well as children from privileged ones. The fantastical pressing for ever rising accountability is used to justify ever greater political and bureaucratic intervention, a breakdown in the trust in public schools, and the disparaging of public service as as a prime motivator for the actions of teachers.”



“Beyond the school gate, is the twisting and turning of the power elite to avoid doing anything genuine about the growing gap beyond rich and poor. The return to the narrow version of the 3Rs should be seen as a cynical strategy put forward as an all-purpose cover for doing nothing of significance…..the power elite has successfully pulled the stunt of a narrow view of literacy and numeracy becoming a proxy for the curriculum…the idea that the 3Rs is somehow separated from the whole curriculum is a damaging fallacy…..The idea, openly acknowledged in present policies, and implicit in the idea of league tables, is that first get the 3Rs in place, and then attend to the wider curriculum.

No, no, no, no!

This idea of the 3Rs first…suggests a failure of imagination throughout the system.”


“A great irony of national standards [aka NAPLAN] purported to keep parents and the government better informed, is that the reverse will occur. More information will be provided but, because of high stakes surrounding the production, it will become highly inaccurate – all the supervision, moderation, and computerisation won’t make a jot of difference.”

Government Control

“Also, any drop in learning and accomplishment, where and when it occurs, will be managed by the government – is being managed by the government – through its considerably increased command of the education system : the government already has almost complete control of university quantitative research through its contractual agreements; and control of qualitative reporting through its ideologically charged organisation of the bureaucracies – meaning the education system is already close to being hermetically sealed.

When test results become politically sensitive as they increasingly are through the extreme politicisation of education, the government is easily able to change the nature of the tests, the test processes, the marking procedures to improve or worsen the results as politically suits, and the interpretation and reporting of results.”



  “Now is the time to have more faith in government requiring, though, better government to have more faith in.  Now is the time for trust and cohesiveness to assume priority in our policy making.

In respect to education, the first step is to implement policies with the potential to improve the education at all levels of society….To hang equity on a hook of school education, even if the specific school education policies are fair and sound, is to leave equity dangling.  Surely it must be obvious that, for whatever reasons, present policies in education are not working in the interests of equity : Western governments have been making much of managerialist education over the past two decades, yet, in that time, inequality has greatly increased. In the USA, national standards, league tables, formalistic teaching, business control of schools, increase in private schools, have been functioning for decades, yet, in that time, economic growth has plummeted.

If  business in New Zealand [and Australia] was achieving to the level of its schools, we would be in clover; and if government was, in turn, achieving to the level of its schools, then we would have ample employment, decent wages, strong social services, and a steep reduction in poverty- allowing schools to flourish even more.”


 Please share this with as many folk as you can. I reckon that the full paper should be read by every single teacher and parent in New Zealand and Australia. In particular it needs to be read by those politicians who like children and have the gumption to raise these serious issues at their party meetings – loud and clear.


If you have 4 minutes 17 seconds to spare from your busy schedule, click on the theme song “Care for Kids” above, relax and ‘take in’ the words. Meditate on the plight of today’s Aussie kids.

OtherTreehorns ? :   Check Recent Posts and Archives in the sidebar.

Phil Cullen

41 Cominan Avenue

Banora Point

Australia 2486

07 5524 6443



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s